Before we begin, let's be clear: From about Episode 9 on (Jeremy's boot, and gaining significant steam from the Wes boot episode on) Natalie played circles around the remaining contestants. That ramped up even moreso in the finale. She took major risks, actively cultivated relationships with Jon & Jaclyn, Missy & Baylor, and Keith, then set about systematically taking out the biggest threats to her winning, one by one. That she made it into the finals without winning the final immunity, and just days earlier had blindsided the loved ones of BOTH of the other two women who selected her to join them, speaks volumes about how well she was playing. Her aggressive play lit up the final part of the season, and the comfortable margin by which the jury voted to award her the million-dollar prize was well-deserved.
But this very degree of sophistication and difficulty in Natalie's game begs an obvious question: Why didn't we see more of Natalie earlier in the season? True, part of her pre-merge visibility problem was that she was an the all-powerful Hunahpu tribe, which only went to Tribal Council once. The hapless Coyopas were the main focus of the early-season story, and to be fair, Natalie was given a considerable amount of editorial credit in engineering Drew's asterisk-laden boot. Outside of that episode, though, her main role, even beyond the merge, seemed to be as Jeremy's mostly silent co-conspirator. This is a very odd way to showcase the eventual winner. On the other hand, this relative invisibility did make the season more unpredictable, as the series of presumed winners-edit-holders (Josh, Jeremy, Jon, maybe even Reed and Keith) were knocked off their pedestals. Maybe it's just, as Natalie suggests in her exit interviews, that she really was more key until Jeremy's boot sparked her into the more aggressive mode of play that propelled her to victory.
Whatever the reason, Natalie's early season invisibility still seems odd, and oddly unsatisfying. We're delighted we won, but we wish we'd seen a bit more of her.
Blood vs. Water: a post-mortem
For all the greatness that emerged spontaneously in the first iteration (Blood vs. Water, two seasons ago), this season labored mightily out of the gate, and only barely found its footing in the final few episodes. A lot of that was trying to recapture the magic too soon - rushing into the format with new players, but not giving Casting enough time to find pairs of great players, and eventually having to settle for merely adequate ones (with a few exceptions). But an underappreciated problem was also that the second time through, the couples, not the single players, emerged with the most power post-merge, and that turned out to be an ultimately unsatisfying way to play Survivor, or at least to watch it.
- Clear problem #1: It's a bit unseemly that both Missy and Jaclyn were deprived of joining the No-Votes Finalists Club simply because their loved ones were on the jury. (Reed's Vytas-like vote to award second place solely to Jaclyn notwithstanding.) In a non-BvW-format season, Natalie should have won by an 8-0-0 margin (or maybe 7-1-0, thanks to Reed). This will always be a problem with this format if a pair is split between the Final Two/Three and the jury. Always. And in a season with more evenly matched skill levels, this kind of autovote might even be enough to tilt the final vote in a manner that is not entirely fair.
- Clear problem #2: Having a majority of intact pairs post-merge gave outsized power to the pairs, at the expense of the single players. Jon and Jaclyn parlayed their pairdom into ultimate power from the point the were reunited at the the swap, all the way through to Jon's blindside at the final six. Missy and Baylor further compounded the problem, floating along as a tandem goats, far into the endgame. Natalie wisely broken up both these pairs at F6 and F5. Had she not, she probably wouldn't have reached the finals, and would have had to play her idol for herself just to reach the final four. The power couples had increasingly more and more power as the opposing alliance's numbers dwindled, leaving very little room for those out of power to maneuver.
The last point at which the people outside the Team JJ/Missy-Baylor double-pair was at final NINE. There is safety in numbers, and when half of those numbers are unquestionably, unbreakably aligned with you, safety becomes stagnation, and arrogance. It's not playing a game, it's just letting the clock run out. It's boring, it's painful. Thankfully, Natalie saved us all from that. But the season came perilously close to cataclysmic failure. At its heart, Survivor is an individual game. It has to be, because only one person can win. But when it finally does become truly individual two-thirds of the way through the final episode, and then only because the eventual winner pulled off a stunning combo of back-to-back blindsides... that's a problem.
Exile Island, R.I.P. (we hope)
While the Blood vs. Water twist showed its limitations this season, Exile Island was by far the most pointless and all-around sadistic twist. Here, again, are but some of the reasons why:
Make (let?) Missy compete!
If Missy can't compete in the challenge, make her prove it. Getting a comfortable bench at challenges shouldn't be an acceptable means to coddle a player who otherwise should be pulled. When Phillip Sheppard voluntarily sat out of an individual immunity challenge in Caramoan, he was voted out. Yet Missy was all but ordered to sit out of three of the last four challenges here, and had an essentially free path to the finals. Admittedly, Missy was already the worst-performing challenge competitor of the season when she injured her ankle. But what would be the harm of seeing Missy hobbling around, hopelessly out of contention? Scout Cloud Lee did it! Or Probst cackling "Missy! Not even done with the first bag!" as Jaclyn sprints up to work the final combination in the F4 IC? Missy got to claim she's "not going to quit," but then she more or less did exactly that, with Probst's clear blessing. That's not Survivor.
Why no idol?
When Jon was sent to Exile Island the second time, there was an idol "hidden" in a brand-spanking-new location, even though he had just played one hours earlier (as had Keith), AND Natalie had already found another one in camp. True, the idol Natalie found had been hidden there pre-merge (probably around the time of the swap), but that was shortly after Rocker had left with Coyopa's idol in his pocket, and notably, while Keith already had one from Hunahpu. Since the clue Natalie and Baylor read worked for both camps, another idol should have also been at Hunahpu camp (and never found). So since idols can be re-hidden after someone gets voted out while holding one, AND since they could still be played at the subsequent Tribal Council, precedent has been established that there should have been another idol at Exile Island for Jaclyn to find. So why wasn't there?
Maybe production didn't want 3-out-of-5 people immune at the Final Five Tribal Council. That's an acceptable explanation. But if so, WHY send someone to Exile Island, then? The entire excuse for Exile is that it's a double-edged sword. Were it not for Natalie's idol play, this would just have been a single-edged guillotine for Jaclyn, depriving her the chance to scramble at camp and giving her no shot at finding an idol, just as it was for Jeremy, Wes, and Alec before her.
Sit the f*** down, Probst
Please! Your place at the reunion is on the stage, talking with the actual contestants, not wandering the audience, desperately trying to drum up backing for a second season of The Jeff Probst Show. This reunion clocked in at 27 minutes, minus ads. Most of Probst's questions were off-the-cuff reactions to events that happened just during the finale. None of the pre-jurors were talked to, except John Rocker, who was awarded almost two minutes to expand blandly on his unremarkable personal journey. Never mind that he was the third boot, and had almost no impact on the season. Never mind that Dale played twice as long and three times as hard. No need to hear from him. Or that Alec lasted four times as long as Rocker, and was also ignored (actually, that was probably fine). Instead, let's have random audience members tell you, after prodding, that they watch Survivor. Wow! Who woulda thunk it! Time well spent.
It's confounding that Survivor spent all this time and money filming this particular group of 18 contestants, who then spent up to 39 days starving, bleeding, and competing, and everyone involved put in this monumental effort to re-assemble this same group here on-stage tonight, probably for the last time, only to... hey, let's just ignore them, and spend three minutes polling random people in the audience, to see what they think about the theme for the next season! A theme that, like John Rocker this season, will probably have disappeared by the fourth episode. Hooray, reunion!
San Juan del Sur Episode 14 recaps and commentary
Exit interviews - Natalie Anderson (Winner)
Exit interviews - Jaclyn Schultz (2nd place)
Exit interviews - Missy Payne (3rd place)
Exit interviews - Keith Nale (4th place)
Exit interviews - Baylor Wilson (5th place)
Podcasts - Finale & Reunion